Checking off Boxes With Our Phones

On Monday we go to the Museum of Modern Art. We had actually visited in December of 2016 but with school holidays it was so busy that it was impossible to enjoy our time there. There were always crowds between you and whatever art work. Just have a look at the room where Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was:


This time, there were a fair number of people, but not so many as to impact the enjoyment of the space and artwork.

The artist Nick Cave created several “Sound Suits” – this is one of them. While this one can’t be worn, others of his can be, providing an audible experience as well as visual for those around the wearer.

Upstairs, there was a special exhibit of Adrian Piper’s work. I hadn’t heard of her before. Daegan was particularly excited as she was known in part for her photography. I admit that I found some of her earlier work a little pretentious but as she got older she got more blunt in her calling out inequality. This one in particular really got me.

The text reads: “Pretend…not to know…what you know”

Throughout the museum we noticed a phenomenon. There were a great number of people who were walking from piece to piece. Stopping for a second, snapping a photo, maybe snapping a photo of the caption, and then moving on without stopping to look at the photo. Daegan made a sketch of what he saw in front of “Starry Night”.


I thought about what this could possibly be about. Are the people taking photographs to log their presence there? Is their photo to be shared to show others that they’re there? Would they ever go back and look at their photos? It’s hard to imagine they would with the hundreds of photos they were taking. It made me think that there are whole data warehouses whose space, electricity, and the jobs of administrators to building security – all of them devoted to housing data of photos people may never look at.

In the end I narrowed it down to two theories:

  1. In a world in which social media is so prevalent, the act of taking a photo serves as a real-world version of clicking a “like” button. Posting the photo to their own social media stream constituted a “share”.
  2. People were using taking of a photo to represent checking off a box on a list.  “There, I saw another thing I was supposed to.”

These ideas bounced through my head all day. For many, travel is like this as well: capturing selfies in front of the landmarks the city they’re in are known for. It reminds me of a day I went with one of Sage’s aunts to the Smithsonian Institution Museum. We didn’t have much time so we briskly walked from exhibit to exhibit: “There’s Mr. Rogers’ Sweater…OK let’s go…There’s the Hope Diamond…come along, come along…There’s the carrier pigeon…OK we did it!” They enter a city with a checklist and then work their way through, sometimes stressing themselves out worrying about if they will be able to see all of the things on their list as if completing the list will ensure fulfilment.  This mode of travel may be for some, but I’d rather wander, spend time experiencing a place and seeing what the city decides to present to me.

In our trip we had a list of sorts. Daegan and I set up a Google Map on which we put anything we might want to see. There was no obligation or intention to see everything – or even anything if we felt that way. Instead, we would use these as suggestions – directions in which we could travel. If we found ourselves in a particular area and were looking for the next thing to do we could check the map we’d made to see what was nearby. It was a wonderful way to travel.

How many of us spend our life doing the same thing, rushing through, checking boxes off from marriage, to mortgage, to children. Some of us may take different paths looking for promotions at work, progressively nicer cars or fame and fortune. And as we attain them we take a photo, literally or figuratively, of the moment. “CHECK! DONE! On to the next thing.” I prefer to have the mental equivalent of the Google Map in my head – things I might someday want to do with one or two that I’m heading toward at any given moment. And even then, the goals are only suggestions. Training for a half marathon might end up at a running race, or it might end up not happening and a change of plans instead.

After we finish up at the museum, we head down to Greenwich Village. We’ve got a double espresso on our mind at a coffee house on our map. But then we pass Washington Square Park. Plans changed. We walk past a 50-something shirtless man with sparrows alighting on his fingers. In front of him is a sign asking for donations for sparrow feed. We walk past several kids in graduation cap and gown – it looks like high school graduation day was today. We find a stand and buy warm soft pretzels. The green grass behind the pretzel stand looks inviting and so we sit down. A nearby brass band plays versions of songs like “Eye of the Tiger” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” that sound like John Philip Sousa wrote them as we play game after game of Seep. We read a little and take in the scene.

parkrealDaegan gets out his notebook and conte pencils again and starts to draw while I read my book.

Washington Square Park – by Daegan Lunsford

We do eventually make it to the cafe and onward to dinner. But that really wasn’t the point after all, was it?

11 thoughts on “Checking off Boxes With Our Phones

  1. Nice sketches! He’s really good at it.
    We always click so many photographs on our trips and most of it is forgotten later. Don’t know why we do that, I’ve been consciously trying to reduce that myself. In the age of printed photographs, we would be cautious with our clicks as we had a limited roll and now we often click a single photo 4-5 times 😀

    1. Lately I’ve had the opposite problem. I try to take photos to share here and elsewhere but if I’m having a really good time, I completely forget to take any. That’s part of why I had to get Daegan’s photos for Governor’s Island: I was having such a great time there that the idea of taking a photo just never occurred to me. Good thing he is thinking ahead!

  2. I went to the MoMA in the dead of winter, so I missed a lot of the crowds. Starry Night didn’t really do it for me. I was surprised by that.

    I cried in front of a Frida Kahlo painting, though.

    1. The first time Sage and I went it was a completely dead day. The time Daegan and I went where that photo was taken it was a few days after Christmas and I think everyone had the same idea: go inside and keep warm on the week off. It was brutal.

      I actually liked Starry Night the first time I saw it – I was so interested to see it in three dimensions and notice the depth in it due to the thickness of the paint. It’s not my favourite thing there, though. The art that I like best makes me think – which is why I really liked that triptych photo above (and others like it in the exhibit)

      1. Have you been to the MNBAQ? That one was my favorite. It was the first art museum that my husband genuinely enjoyed. Usually he finds a seat in each wing and waits for me to come tell him the highlights, haha.

        I think I was surprised by how small Starry Night was. I think every poster I ever saw of it was bigger.

      2. Wow – you know, I lived in Quebec City a short walk from there but never made it to there. I think I’ll have to go there next time. That sounds awesome!

  3. Oh my gosh, yes. You might remember from my trip to NY, I mentioned the exact same things about those people in front of Starry Night. It seemed me and maybe a few other lone stragglers were the only ones reading and actually enjoying the art with two eyes instead of our screens.

    Daegan is so so so talented. Wow. His sketches are breathtaking.

    1. I do! I really would love to read some studies on why people do that. For many it seems almost reflexive. It reminds me of mindless social media scrolling just hitting like buttons while barely taking anything in.

      Daegan will be thrilled to hear all this good feedback. I love what he does also 🙂

      1. I have to remind myself to take photos for the blog otherwise I was never into the taking photos of everything and everywhere lol but I’m getting loads better at it now. I always think “I’m gonna mention this on my blog” so I can remember now. I think others do it for Instagram to prove they’ve been somewhere? There’s this saying like “did you even go if there’s no photos?” or something like that. I’m sure I worded it wrong but people say it everywhere online. lol.

  4. There was a recent (um, for values of recent that might be over a year already?) exhibit at the Legion of Honor (part of the deYoung in San Francisco, but over here by the Presidio) of Klimt and Rodin – sketches to sculptures – that I remember taking a lot of pictures of, despite crowds, or including a shot or two over contemplative shoulders of a work… that I had in my mind to sit with in quieter contemplation myself, in that ever-receding Later On. Perhaps it’s time to do that.
    Reminds me of our perplexity this spring in the week after my father died, at my folks’ collections of slides as a preferred photo archival method in the 50s-70s… I’m sure we have or can get a digital converter jig. Someday…
    I’ve decided I like buying the audio tours often available with major exhibits – there’s some interesting background, things to get me to stop and take that extra time to ponder a work, get a little of its context, and enjoy others’ enjoyment of it as well, or share that moment of being rocked back on our heels with the impact of a Something.
    Lise lived on Washington Square when she worked in the library at NYU. Magical place. Of course I met her NYC after taking a red-eye, dropping bags with our friends, and trailing all over town: A-train up to the Cloisters (imagine being a ‘tween Pisces and getting to go THERE to brood), bus back down to the Met, strolled over and bought a basic warm hat as evening chill came down, bussed to Bleeker & sixth, wandered over to Washington Square Park, looking and nibbling things and then back to Chelsea and friends (and flump!) – so there may have been fatigue talking in that easy magical walkabout, too.
    When we lived in SF — no one can afford to live there forever — we made a date jar, full of fortune-cookie sized pieces of paper with places and things to go and see and do, and over those six and a half years they collected little notes on the back with when (and when again) we did this or that. Your Google Map points of interest is quite similar; love the “what’s nearby, next?” feature of yours.

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